-Can you recall any specific instances of physical violence by the armed forces?
-Were crackdowns common?
-Oh, yes! Women would all get a beating inside our own homes, while the men were asked to assemble elsewhere.
-But you just said there are no specific instances?
-Well, this was normal. No particular instance as such, happened every single time.
This is a conversation from 2015 that I had with a Kashmiri woman in the frontier district of Kupwara in northern Kashmir where I was conducting fieldwork for my doctoral project on gender-based violence in Kashmir. After this conversation, I realised that specific questions on physical violence would be needed to be asked since women seemed to take “normal” violence in their stride, to the point that they were not even spoken about or worthy of being recalled.
Question is, what is “normal” violence? In Jammu & Kashmir specifically, the manifestation of violence ranges from rape to torture and everything else in between. For example, 27 years have passed since the mass rape in the twin hamlets of Kunan and Poshpora in Kupwara district by a battalion of the 4th Rajputana Rifles of the 68th Brigade during a cordon and search operation, on the intervening night of February23-24, 1991. In the beginning, no one was even willing to address, leave alone investigate, such a serious allegation. The Army rejected the charges outright and described the demands for investigation akin to flogging a dead horse. The matter is now in the Supreme Court.
But for many others, including one of the rape survivors, the memories of what happened have remained although the physical injuries having healed:
It never was just about the wounds of the body, but about the heart and the soul, and how are those to go away? The night is etched in our minds forever. The memories stay with us like a burn that refuses to go away.
It is clear that for a militaristic state, the main tool of communication is violence. From refusing to repeal several laws aimed at maintaining such a militaristic state, like the Disturbed Areas Act or the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), to constant surveillance, the oppressive presence of the state marks Kashmiri bodies in violent ways. The torture and rape of men in custody has been a part of this military structure to feminise the Kashmiri ‘other’. Women have faced violence in specific forms owing to the gendered identity they carry, as women of the ‘other’, to be ‘dishonoured’ and ‘dehumanized’ by the use of rape as a weapon of war. The criminality of such acts is made legal by putting in place laws like AFSPA. In our need to look for grand narratives about the exceptional, we often ignore what forms the lived realities of the people exposed to daily, violent manifestations of a militaristic state structure– that in Kashmir, the exceptional is the everyday.
Women may seem far removed from the frontiers where nationalist armies engage in battle; but in today’s new wars including Kashmir, where the home becomes the war zone– where pellets and bullets ‘fired in the air’ somehow make their way inside people’s hearths and safe havens– women are exposed to the gendered contours of militarization on an everyday basis. Walking through army camps that dot the landscape, subjected to whistling and lewd comments from gun-wielding soldiers, finding their private spaces and personal items exposed to the gaze of soldiers, the constant fear that accompanies the militarized code of conduct, form the ‘normal’ state of exception.
From referring to women’s accounts of sexual violence as ‘recorded rotten stereo sounds that play rape all over again’ to declarations that such allegations are a ‘massive hoax orchestrated by militant groups and their sympathizers’ to calling the women who filed the Public Interest Litigation for re-opening the Kunan Poshpora case as ‘mala fide and suspicious’, the state has gone out of its’ way to reject women’s testimonies of violence to ensure that the so-called morale of its soldiers is upheld.
This war is against the people the state calls its own, and it thrives on bodily insecurities of those people. As yet another anniversary of the mass rape and torture in Kunan Poshpora is commemorated as Kashmiri Women’s Resistance Day, I ask myself, where do I stand as a Kashmiri researcher? When feminists extend their solidarity in cases like Kunan Poshpora, voicing concerns for gender justice, they often do it in complete disregard of the larger structure of militarization within which gender-based violations occur as well as the political aspirations bringing people to frontlines. In foregrounding women’s issues, they rely on orientalist assumptions highlighting the need for women’s liberation from a conservative Muslim society.
So am I too supposed to buy into this false equivalence, to bring about ‘objectivity’ that favours the dominant narratives perpetuated by existing power structures, in the interests of ‘neutral’ ‘unbiased’ research? How do I speak of as “exceptional” what I know to be normal, written into the texture of Kashmiri women’s lives? Am I supposed to record from the sidelines women’s stories of violence, and ignore the state’s structural violence intensifying community fault-lines along the axis of gender, and working through gendered markings of Kashmiri bodies? Or can my “other” subjectivities form a valid component of the research?
I do not shy away from admitting I laughed, cried, joked, with women as they narrate their stories! Isn’t that what makes us who we are? When Kashmiri women articulate their multiple experiences of the conflict, question narratives that reduce them to mere victims, reject state’s attempts at militarized humanitarianism and documenting their own stories, what excuse do we have to not hear, except for our own complicity in violence?